Abe Zumwalt ’11 boarding a Spanish Overnight “Trenhotel” bound from Lisbon, Portugal to Biarritz, France. Photo by SUBMITTED

Abe Zumwalt ’11 recently woke up in a cold sweat, realizing he had just thought of a new solution to a research project from a senior year economics course at Knox with Professor Jonathan Powers. “I had gone down a rabbit hole trying to measure an impact, and the answer finally came to me 10 years later,” he said.

Not surprisingly for anyone who knows Zumwalt, the research problem was about railroads. Abe has loved riding trains for most of his life. He transformed that passion into a career as an associate with R.L. Banks and Associates, Inc., the oldest railroad-specific consulting firm in the United States. He works primarily in the passenger rail space, with current projects focusing on the feasibility of extending passenger rail services, and aiding negotiations between municipalities and railroads about rights of way for freight and passenger rail service.

His passion for trains was evident from his first year as a student at Knox. Noting his interest in how systems work, Abe’s advisor, Stephen Fineberg, Szold Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Classics, suggested that he major in economics. Steve Cohn, Charles W. and Arvilla S. Timme Professor in Economics, was influential, providing Abe direction in some independent studies. “I was able garner a business understanding of how railroads work and how they are different from highways and air travel.”

The location of Knox in Galesburg, a railroad hub, was a boon to Abe’s knowledge base.

“The Seymour Library has an outstanding collection on railroads. I read all about them—mostly over break when I was traveling to and from Seattle on the Empire Builder, splitting sleepers with classmates.”

He was able to extend his studies to these trips. “When you drive through the country, you’ll never see a main street from the interstate. However, there is reliable activity in every place where the train stops,” explained Abe. “I became convinced that this pulse of life, the train stopping in the town, created a spark of activity. I saw the station as a portal to generate other economic activity.”

John Spittell, the Joseph E. & Judith B. Wagner Distinguished Chair in Business and Executive in Residence, put Abe in contact with BNSF employees, helping him move closer to his career in the rail industry. On a study abroad term in Besançon, France, Abe was able to explore the differences between the U.S. and European rail systems.

Grants from the Richter Memorial Trusts allowed him to attend conferences sponsored by rail organizations to continue his research and network. Lane Sunderland, Chancie Ferris Booth Professor Emeritus of Political Science, aided in Abe’s first career move, putting him in contact with Barry Williams ’78, who worked for the National Association of Railroad Passengers, where Abe worked for seven years before moving to R.L. Banks & Associates, Inc.

The Knox experience allowed him to parlay his passion into a career that is open to more students. “The railroad is kind of like wallpaper. It’s always in the background to the Knox experience, but it’s overlooked as a career field and there is a lot to do. It’s not going away any time soon.”

And the revelation about his research? “Looking at actual property taxes near the station instead of appraised property values—it would have changed everything,” said Abe.